These Robots Will Teach Kids Programming Skills

Photo: Play-i

Yana and Bo play hide-and-seek.

These colorful robots are not only fun to play with—they can teach kids computer programming skills. That’s what Play-i, a Silicon Valley startup founded by engineers from Google, Apple, and Symantec, says about its robots, unveiled this week as part of a crowdsourcing campaign.

The idea of using robots to teach kids programming, math concepts, and problem solving is not new. In fact, it’s been more than 40 years since MIT educator Seymour Papert demonstrated the possibilities of hands-on learning with his Logo programming language and mobile machines known as “turtle robots.”

Over the years, numerous robotic toys and kits designed for kids came to market—most famously the LEGO Mindstorms set (trivia: it was named after Papert’s influential book “Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas”). But most of these products present a steep learning curve for kids (and parents!), and few are adequate for very young children.

Play-i, based in Mountain View, Calif., wants to see that change. It says its robots, Bo and Yana, can make programming fun and accessible for kids as young as 5 years old. The robots talk via Bluetooth LE with an iPad or other tablets, which Play-i says are the perfect interface for children to learn programming concepts in an engaging, intuitive way.

“We wanted to create robots so easy to use that kids could take them out of the box and start doing things with them,” cofounder and CEO Vikas Gupta told me when he stopped by IEEE Spectrum a few weeks ago. He said that after a year building prototypes and gathering feedback from kids, teachers, and advisers, they’re ready to get the robots in the hands of lots of people.

Their plan is raising money to produce the robots in volume through a crowdfunding campaign that they launched on Monday. A contribution of US $149 will get you a Bo; $49 will get you a Yana. Or for $189 you can get both. The robots are expected to ship in June. (A reminder: any crowdfunding project has risks.)

The robots Gupta showed me were prototypes, and as such they were still buggy, their movements jerky and their behavior a bit erratic. But I could see the potential. The larger one, Bo, has wheels and can drive around. It's equipped with distance sensors, accelerometer, and gyro. It has attachments on its head and body where you can connect arms or other accessories. This allows the robot do things like playing a xylophone or pushing blocks. The smaller robot, Yana, doesn’t move on its own, using lights and sound for interaction. (Gupta says kids will like it because they can use their imagination and pretend it’s an airplane or animal).

I was surprised that the robots don’t have Wi-Fi capability, and even more surprised that they don’t have cameras. Gupta explained that he didn’t think those things added much to the experience at this point (while adding to cost), though he didn’t exclude the possibility of including them in the future. But my biggest concern is that some Bo models will ship with no arms, which to me reduces its appeal. Gupta disagrees, saying that Bo can still do plenty of things to keep kids interested, and that even without arms, the robot can still push things around with its body.

Gupta said he and his cofounders—all have kids—saw first-hand how children could master an iPad in no time. But at the same time they wanted to let kids use the tablets not only to consume technology but also to create technology. In particular, they wanted them to learn a skill that is becoming more and more valuable: coding.

Play-i is creating a tablet-based visual programming interface that let kids build sequences of actions and learn through play and exploration. The sequences can start simple and get more complex as kids become more familiar with the robot and interface. “You can start with the robot playing music, and then add more actions, like blinking the eyes,” Gupta said. More advanced users will be able to program the robots with languages like Scratch and Blockly.

I asked Gupta why a crowdsourcing project. The founders have an impressive background—Gupta held senior positions at Amazon and Google; Saurabh Gupta ran Apple's iPod software team for six years; Mikal Greaves led the engineering team at industrial design firm Frog Design; and Imran Khan was a senior executive at Symantec—so why not raise capital and create a full-fledged product (as San Francisco startup Anki did with its robotic racing game Anki Drive)?

Gupta says they want to “validate the demand.” Once they can verify that many people are interested in this kind of robot, they can plan their future steps, further refining the product and scaling up manufacturing and distribution. Their crowdsourcing campaign has done extremely well in its first two days and they should reach their target soon, so I’m guessing that demand has been "validated." Now we'll wait and see if Bo and Yana will make kids happy—and smarter.

What do you think? Check out more photos and screenshots of the programming interface below, along with the full technical specs as provided by Play-i. And if you're interested, you can go to the company's website to support the project

Bo
- Wireless (Bluetooth 4.0) for easy connection to touch devices for programming
- Two motors for driving that provide differential steering for body motion
- Two motors for head pan and tilt
- One programmable eye light-ring to add emotions
- Two programmable full-color ear lights
- One programmable full-color headlight
- One speaker with customizable sounds
- Four programmable buttons
- Four Infrared beacons to advertise location to other robots
- Twelve different sensors to interact with surroundings and other robots
- Three distance sensors to detect obstacles and objects in front and back
- Sound sensor to detect sound gestures like a clap
- Two wheel encoders enable precise body motion control
- Two head encoders enable precise head positioning
- Accelerometer for gesture control and positioning
- Gyroscope to track orientation
- Two Infrared detectors to detect other robots
- Six multi-function attachment points to add accessories
- Rechargeable battery and Micro-B USB connector for charging

Yana
- Wireless (Bluetooth 4.0) for easy connection to touch devices for programming
- One programmable eye light-ring with full-color overlay to add emotions
- Two programmable full-color ear lights
- One programmable button
- One speaker with customizable sounds
- Four Infrared beacons to advertise location to other robots
- Accelerometer for gesture detection
- Three multi-function attachment points to add accessories and bases
- Rechargeable battery and Micro-B USB connector for charging

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